Judge quashes homosexual harassment law
Christian groups have won significant changes to sexual orientation laws which threatened religious liberty. A judge in the High Court in Belfast has quashed ‘harassment’ laws contained in Northern Ireland’s sexual orientation regulations. Christian groups said such laws would interfere with freedom of speech. On Friday the Church of England expressed concerns about connecting ‘harassment’ laws to sexual orientation discrimination which the Government is considering for the rest of the UK in its forthcoming Single Equality Bill.
The judge also confirmed that rights to religious liberty and free speech are affected by the laws, but said it would be up to the County Courts to make rulings on a case by case basis. This is significant because Government lawyers had argued that such freedoms were not affected.
The judge also referred to a judgment from the Brocki case concerning a Christian printer in Canada. In that case the Superior Court of Ontario ruled that a printer could refuse to print material which went against his core religious beliefs but could not refuse to print other material, such as letterhead, for a homosexual. The judge said the County Courts should consider this case when considering whether religious freedom and free speech has been interfered with.
The sexual orientation regulations outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities, service including education. The judge narrowed the scope of the laws so that the school curriculum would not be affected. This vindicates the concern of many who said there was need for clarification on this point.
Although there are some religious liberty protections written in to the regulations, faith groups which receive public funding (for elderly care homes, for example) are banned from making use of such protections. The judge narrowed to scope of this area of the regulations so that only for the activity for which the group is acting ‘in contract with the state’ is the faith group barred from having the religious freedom protections available – and not for all its activities.
Commenting on the judgment, Mike Judge (Head of Communications at The Christian Institute) said, “Our legal action was about religious liberty and free speech. This ruling means you cannot ride roughshod over religious conscience. Although the sexual orientation regulations were not quashed, we are delighted that the harassment law has been. We are also pleased that the regulations have been narrowed in scope so that they do not affect the school curriculum or threaten every activity of a faith group that receives some public funding. The Government tried to argue that these laws did not affect religious liberty and free speech. The judge rejected that argument, but said it was for the courts to decide these things on a case-by-case basis. As a result of our legal action County Courts in Northern Ireland will have to consider the principles of the Brocki case. We will work to ensure the same principles apply to the rest of the UK. It is sad that in a free society Christians will have to defend themselves in court for no other reason than their religious beliefs on sexual ethics.”